At Science, More Calls for a Focus on Framing

In a Policy Forum article published this week at Science, MIT Professor of Management John Sterman reports on an experiment that shows just how self-defeating it is to continue to overburden the public with technical and science-laden explanations of climate change, especially when the communication goal is to catalyze public demand for policy action.

In the experiment, MIT students with advanced training in either the sciences or economics were asked to read descriptions from the IPCC summary for policymakers that depicted the long term accumulation of C02 in the atmosphere. When asked then to sketch what they estimated to be the emissions path needed to stabilize atmospheric CO2, nearly 2/3 of the elite MIT students erroneously reasoned that greenhouse gas emissions can stabilize even though emissions would continue to exceed the rate of removal from the atmosphere.

The conclusion: When presented with highly technical and science-laden depictions of a problem such as climate change, even our brightest minds with advanced specialized training often lack the required mental frameworks and models to accurately interpret, make sense of, and arrive at correct judgments.

As I've argued in articles at Science, The Scientist, and elsewhere, the problem in waking policymakers and the public up to climate change isn't an absence of science literacy, as so many scientists (and bloggers) continue to bemoan, but rather simply the nature of human cognition and the realities of our media system.

Let's put it this way, if our best students at MIT can't make sense of the IPCC report, how can we expect policymakers or the public?

What's needed is not simply getting more scientific information out there, but rather new methods for communicating about the problem that are adapted to the background of targeted publics, journalists, and decision-makers. In order to figure how to do this systematically, Sterman echoes my past conclusions by urging the scientific community to "partner with psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists to communicate the science in ways that foster hope and action rather than denial and despair. Doing so does not require scientists to abandon rigor or objectivity."

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